3TFO: Bears @ Vikings, Week 14
Due to the NFL’s insistence on scheduling divisional games later and later in the season, Chicago and Minnesota will be going head to head this Sunday for the second time in just 15 days. Percy Harvin’s absence was felt in the first game, and it will have to be dealt with again as Minnesota recently put the cap on his season with a trip to injured reserve. This is coming at the worst possible time for the Vikings, who are currently tied with three other teams for the seventh spot in the NFC. If they lose here it will be their seventh of the season, and with Houston and Green Bay still on the docket, this just may be do or die.
Chicago’s overtime loss last week to the surging Seahawks was the latest game in a rough stretch for the Bears that has now seen them lose three of their past four. They’ve fallen out of the lead in the competitive NFC North, but as long as they can regain their winning ways the Bears will have a chance to reclaim the division when they host the Packers next week. That will have to start this week, because even though the division crown is in sight, they are still at risk of dropping out entirely if they can’t get out of their current funk.
AP vs.Bears Linebackers
Without Harvin in the lineup, Christian Ponder has struggled even more than usual. In fact, he was unable to connect with a receiver last week until the last few minutes of play. With that in mind, now is as good a time as any to lean heavily on the surgically repaired Adrian Peterson. Fresh off a 210-yard performance in which he received every handoff, save a single carry for Toby Gerhart, Peterson is now tied for the league lead in forcing 47 missed tackles and has 300 more yards than the next closest back.
Against a solid run blocking team, and arguably the best center in the league, Chicago’s linebackers will have to make plays if they don’t want to get gashed by Peterson. Unfortunately, fan favorite Brian Urlacher has been having a bit of a down year against the run, and is now down with a hamstring injury. His partner, Lance Briggs, hasn’t fared too much better, missing one in every 7.8 tackling attempts in run defense. Neither missed a tackle in their previous meeting with the Vikings though, and given Urlacher’s struggles this season the Bears might just be better off right now without him in the line-up. With the dependence on Peterson in Minnesota right now, the ability of the linebacker trio to bottle him up will be critical.
After a couple of years in which he looked way out of his depth, third year starter J’Marcus Webb looks to be improving. He’s certainly not going to make anyone’s All-Pro list any time soon, but he’s actually been solid this year. His three-sack performance in San Francisco aside, Webb would have graded positively for his pass blocking this year. And though he’s typically struggled against the Vikings (six sacks, two hits, and 13 hurries in his first four games against them), he gave up only a single hurry in their Week 12 meeting this year. Naturally, Jared Allen will be looking to add to his sack numbers on the year against Webb. Allen has 21 combined hits and sacks on the year, second-most at the position. A big part of that is his consistency — Allen has tallied two or more pressures in each of his past 18 games, dating back to Week 13 of last season, but he is dealing with an injury that might slow him down.
Brandon Marshall vs. Vikings Corners
To say that the Bears’ addition of Brandon Marshall was a success would be an understatement. Just 32 yards short of his 2011 yardage total, he’s already reeled in 10 more receptions than he did a year ago. At 2.95 yards per route run, he leads all wide receivers, and with 130 targets, he’s seen three times more passes come his way than anyone else on the Bears’ offense.
Lining up primarily on the outside, Marshall will see a lot of Antoine Winfield (in base defense) and A.J. Jefferson. Lost in the hype of stellar young cornerbacks cropping up in the NFC, Winfield has had as good a year as ever, allowing a QB rating of 69.8 on balls thrown his way, picking off three of them. He’s one of only two corners who’ve been thrown at more than 65 times without giving up a touchdown. Jefferson has had a rough go of it though, surrendering three touchdowns this season despite limited playing time. He’ll need to play better if he wants to limit the explosive Marshall. In their Week 12 meeting, Jay Cutler threw more than half of his passes in Marshall’s direction, so shutting down Marshall must be a top priority.